A Comprehensive Guide to Material Selection, Mechanical Properties, and Material Degradation in Piping Systems

The selection of piping materials is a crucial process that involves careful consideration of the characteristics of the materials that are suitable for the required service. The chosen materials must be compatible with the transported media, temperature, and pressure conditions, ensuring the safety and longevity of the piping system. In many industrial applications, metals are the primary choice for piping materials, as they offer the necessary mechanical strength for long-term service. However, extreme temperatures can pose challenges to materials, such as low-temperature brittleness, creep, and oxidation. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the mechanical and physical properties of piping materials, material selection, and potential material degradation over time.

Mechanical Properties of Piping Materials

Mechanical properties play a critical role in the design of piping systems, as they determine how materials respond to applied forces. These properties can be broadly categorized into strength and ductility, with specific properties that are commonly considered in material selection outlined below:

  1. Young’s Modulus (Elastic Modulus): Young’s Modulus is the ratio of normal stress to strain for tensile or compressive stress. This ratio remains linear across a range of stresses, known as Hooke’s Law. Materials that behave elastically will return to their original shape when the applied load is released.
  2. Yield Strength: The yield strength is the point at which a specimen begins to undergo plastic deformation when subjected to a load exceeding its elastic limit. Most materials do not suddenly transition from purely elastic to purely plastic behavior. The yield strength marks the transition point between plastic and elastic deformation.
  3. Ultimate Tensile Strength: The ultimate tensile strength is the maximum load that can be applied and is divided by the original cross-sectional area of the specimen.
  4. Hardness: Hardness measures a material’s ability to resist deformation, typically determined through standardized tests that measure a material’s resistance to indentation. Common hardness tests use different indentors, sizes, and applied loads.
  5. Toughness: Sudden fractures, indicating low ductility around cracks, can occur in certain metals when a load is applied rapidly. A material’s ability to withstand such brittle fractures is a measure of toughness.

Physical Properties of Piping Materials

In addition to mechanical properties, physical properties also play a vital role in material selection for piping. These properties are integral to understanding how a material behaves in different conditions. Key physical properties include:

  1. Density: Density is the ratio of a material’s mass to its volume. In vessel and piping design, the density of construction materials relative to their strength per unit area is often a crucial consideration.
  2. Thermal Conductivity: Thermal conductivity represents a material’s ability to transmit heat energy from a high-temperature source to a lower-temperature point. It is typically expressed as the thermal conductivity coefficient (k) and measures the quantity of heat transferred through a unit thickness per unit area per unit temperature difference.
  3. Thermal Expansion: Expressed as the coefficient of linear expansion, thermal expansion measures the change in length per degree temperature change, compared to the length at a specific reference temperature (such as room temperature). The coefficient varies with temperature.
  4. Specific Heat: Specific heat measures the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a unit weight of a material by one degree.

Physical Properties of Piping Materials

Metals in Piping

Metals are broadly categorized into two types: ferrous, which includes iron and iron-based alloys, and non-ferrous, encompassing other metals and their alloys. Metal selection is a complex process involving considerations of the desired properties and the intended application.

Iron-based Metals:

Iron is one of the most common metals, though rarely found in its pure form in nature. It typically occurs in the form of oxide minerals (Fe2O3 or Fe3O4) and comprises approximately 6 percent of the Earth’s crust.

  • Cast Iron: Cast iron, characterized by its high carbon content (greater than 2 percent by weight), is coarser, less ductile, and less tough than steel. However, it has superior fluidity when in a molten state, making it suitable for intricate casting.
  • Steel: Steel is defined as an iron alloy with a carbon content of no more than 2.0 percent by weight. The most common method for steel production involves refining pig iron by oxidizing impurities and excess carbon, which has a higher affinity for oxygen than iron.

Alloy Steels:

Alloying carbon steel with other elements allows for a wide range of desired properties. Below are some common alloying elements and their effects on steel:

  • Carbon Alloying: Increasing the carbon content generally results in higher strength and hardness but can reduce ductility and toughness. Carbon also increases the susceptibility to air hardening and weld hardening.
  • Nickel: Nickel, when alloyed with steel, enhances ferrite strength and toughness and is soluble in all proportions. It also increases hardenability, strength, and toughness in heat-treated steels. When combined with chromium, it produces steel alloys with higher impact values and fatigue resistance than plain carbon steel.
  • Aluminum: Aluminum is often used as a deoxidizer in molten steel and to control grain size. Controlled additions of aluminum lead to finer grain size.
  • Copper: Copper dissolves in steel and strengthens iron as a substitutional element. The use of copper in certain alloys enhances resistance to atmospheric corrosion and increases creep strength.

Material Degradation in Service

As piping systems age and accumulate sufficient service time, some materials undergo changes in their properties, which can be detrimental. This phenomenon is known as material degradation and can occur due to various reasons, including:

  1. Aging Properties: Some steels subjected to high temperatures and extended service times experience a gradual change in their properties. This phenomenon is known as aging and primarily affects materials that have undergone heat treatment or cold working to achieve high strength for use at elevated temperatures.
  2. Temper Embrittlement: Temper embrittlement occurs in carbon steel and alloy steel when they are exposed to temperatures between approximately 660°F and 1020°F. The property most significantly affected is toughness. The occurrence of temper embrittlement depends on the steel’s chemical composition, heat treatment conditions, fabrication history, and service temperature.
  3. Hydrogen Attack: Hydrogen attack is a significant concern in materials used in ammonia synthesis, oil refining, and coal gasification equipment. When carbon and low-alloy steels are exposed to high temperatures and pressures in the presence of hydrogen for extended periods, they can experience reduced tensile and creep rupture properties. This phenomenon is associated with methane (CH4) formation within the steel.
  4. Graphitization: Graphitization is a time and temperature-dependent nucleation and growth process where iron carbide in the form of pearlite first spheroidizes and then forms graphite nodules. This process can create regions of weakness, making the material prone to fracture, especially along the heat-affected zones.


The selection of piping materials is a complex process, requiring careful consideration of mechanical and physical properties, as well as the potential for material degradation over time. Understanding the mechanical and physical properties of materials is crucial for designing safe and efficient piping systems. Moreover, awareness of potential material degradation

mechanisms allows for proactive maintenance and replacement planning to ensure the continued integrity of the piping system. In industrial applications, the right choice of materials and vigilant monitoring of their condition are essential for long-term, reliable operation.

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